It makes all the sense in the world to cover new things — the movies opening this weekend, the TV shows premiering right now, the books that have just been released — to the degree people are asking the questions (1) What’s interesting about this new thing? (2) Is this new thing good? and (3) What new things are there? Those are important parts of cultural coverage, and they always will be.
But people also ask questions like (4) What’s good that I might not have considered? and (5) What’s the historical context of this new thing? and (6) What’s with this thing that keeps coming up as recommended on my Netflix queue? and (7) Why do all my friends keep recommending the same movie from 1996?
While many outlets have specific series that explore old films, or classic TV, or favorite books, there’s still a focus on What’s New Right This Minute that probably hasn’t yet caught up with the way people take in culture now.
Platform releases — starting with a handful of theaters and hoping to gain steam — are one thing, because you never know when a wide release might come. But what about planned rollouts where New York and L.A. get to go first, then ten more cities, then everybody else? To peg all your coverage to the moment something is available in two cities is to give up a lot of control to studio scheduling and take a lot of meaning away from a lot of readers. There’s a legitimate question about whether a movie like 12 Years A Slave should be covered by a national outlet when it becomes available in two theaters, or whether those conversations would be more meaningful to more people if they happened when the saturation was a little heavier.
That consideration can even go beyond theatrical release dates. Consider a movie like the documentary The Queen Of Versailles, which told the story of an obscenely wealthy family’s recession experience. It made about $2.4 million in theaters, which is pretty respectable for a documentary that never played in more than 87 theaters.
But it’s the kind of movie that’s really interesting to talk about with people, and critical to talk about with people outside of New York and L.A. if you want to have anything approaching a broader conversation about what it’s getting at with regard to the economy. So when is the right time for that conversation? When it plays at festivals? Opens in three theaters? Opens in 87 theaters? Comes to Netflix? Comes to cable? Its technical release date was July 20, 2012, but it played in fewer than 25 theaters until August 3. Most people I know saw it on demand at home, much later.
If almost all of the coverage comes when the majority of people have no access, you’re condemning a huge part of the audience — no matter what their level of curiosity, intelligence, and enthusiasm, no matter what they might bring to the table as a result of their unique experience — to passive engagement with criticism and culture. You’re saying, “Sit there while two coastal clumps talk about this really fascinating thing and decide what The Cultural Consensus is going to be, and then in a while, we’ll ship it to you, by which point we won’t be talking about it anymore.”
Looking at this kind of thing differently doesn’t even mean that there’s no right cultural moment to have a conversation; it just means that moment might be the one when something truly becomes a piece of cultural currency, which might be its arrival on demand, or on cable, or on PBS.
Changes in distribution have been a huge boon to people who used to have to — at best — go to a video store and scour a small “Special Interest” shelf if they wanted documentaries, or a small “Foreign Films” shelf if they wanted anything from outside the United States. But pegging discussions and analysis overwhelmingly to a single theatrical release date, in part because everyone else does it, prevents those changes in availability from fully translating into broader active participation in that conversation.
The same is true of television. It used to be that if you didn’t see a show when it was on, you probably weren’t going to see it at all, save for the limited opportunities presented by reruns. That’s not true now. It seems likely that a whole lot more people watched Breaking Bad as an old show (for at least part of the time they saw it) than as a new show. People jump in, they jump out, they skip the seasons their friends say aren’t important, and they make their own schedules. Given the sheer percentage of new network shows that are canceled every fall, what’s the return on fussing over the quality of every single one when you could be digging up something more interesting?
There’s also something to be said for simply acknowledging that because we all miss most of everything, if your entire cultural intake relies on what just came out, you’re letting temporary conflicts dictate what you never see at all. One example: it’s absurd, in the environment we currently occupy, that a film can be washed out because it’s released on the same day as another film. Things stay in theaters for weeks; they stay on video for years. Books are available essentially forever. Whenever. If you’re looking on a given weekend for something great to watch or read, the odds are overwhelming — in fact, you can guarantee — that you can find something better among what you’ve missed than among what’s new.
None of this means you shouldn’t get excited about new things, or critics shouldn’t write about them, or we shouldn’t point them out. Cultural arrivals are exciting and invigorating; they show us where we’re going. New writers, new actors, new films, new techniques, new ideas — all of this is great. All of it is thrilling. It’s what I think about most of the time, too.
But release-date superfocus can be really exhausting. It’s a model where everything bursts in, roars, and largely vanishes. And that’s not where the cultural long tail is pointing. We might be better off thinking thematically than temporally much of the time. We might be better off simply starting discussions about things that are interesting and trusting that the audience is always composed of a mix of those who are familiar with them and those who aren’t. (This is one of the reasons why the podcast I host almost always has one topical segment and one “evergreen” segment that isn’t so focused on the new.)
There are advantages for writers, too, in broadening the scope. Writing about old culture — even if it’s only six months old — gets you out of the crush of time pressures and headline-pun-claiming contests. If you do need the cooperation of publicists, it sometimes takes you from dealing with publicists who are too busy to pay attention to you to publicists who are thrilled to hear from you. It sometimes takes you from artists who are sick to death of being asked “What’s it like to work with George Clooney?” 400 times to ones who have the distance from a project to have thought of something fresh to say.
New This Week, New Right Now, New And Hot, New And Notable — if you’re talking about culture, you’ve got to have this stuff; you can’t not have it. But a little less preoccupation with becoming one of 50 reviews of a movie 75 percent of people can’t see yet, or one of 25 reviews of a book that has a 20-week waiting list at the library, or one of countless people trying to make a decision about a TV pilot that might not even tell you anything except “maybe,” might lead to more productive conversations on the whole.